Today I was asked to give a talk to new research students in the School of Maths and Stats about my experiences. Here’s what I prepared:
I’m going to talk about three things:
1) daily struggle of being a PhD student
2) not overloading yourself with non-PhD related commitments
1) Throughout undergraduate life you tend to be successful pretty regularly. Your work is doled out in bite sized pieces, you get positive reinforcement from doing well in an assignment/quiz/exam. At the end of the semester you got a set of marks, probably Ds or HDs, to let you know that you are on track.
As a postgraduate student that doesn’t really happen. You’re not going to be successful on a daily basis. There’s a good chance you won’t even be successful on a monthly basis. There will be a time when you question your life choices – where you wonder why on earth you chose this path. For weeks on end you might find yourself banging your head against a wall.
And just when you’re about to throw in the towel and give up,
– a spark of an idea will come to you,
– or you’ll find a journal article that gives you a new perspective on how to solve the problem,
– or you’ll find new meaning in an old article that was utter gibberish when you first read it a few months ago
and you’ll get a little jolt of ecstasy as that Gordian knot of a problem you’ve been working on unravels before you.
Those are the good days – you’ll get a rush of endorphins as a present to you from your body for a job well done and you’ll take the afternoon off and go home with a smile on your face. You will remember those days – they are what gets you through the leaner times as you set your mind to the next problem and once again start the daily slog to the next watering hole.
I don’t think there’s any way to avoid the slog, your supervisors might be able to give you some directions to help you navigate the wastelands, but they don’t have a complete map either and there’s no guarantee that they’ve pointed you in a fruitful direction.
Research takes time. Which brings me to my second point.
2) It helps to have a lot of time to devote to research. This may mean limiting your extracurricular activities when they take too much time out of your regular research day. For me, I did way too much teaching early on in my degree – as I was teaching here and in the Business School. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I regret doing all the teaching – I enjoyed it – but it definitely slowed down my progress. For other people it’s trying to do a PhD full-time while working a couple of days a week elsewhere – they almost invariably find that one or both suffers as a result.
If you like teaching, you can apply to become a postgraduate teaching fellow – applications usually open up at the end of the year – it gives you a fancy title, a regular pay cheque, the possibility of a bit of lecturing, and it doesn’t overload you with too much work.
Life is also more enjoyable when you don’t overload yourself. When I had time, one of the high points of my day was taking a paper and a highlighter down to the benches between Carslaw and Madsen, sitting out there in the sun reading, highlighting and contemplating. Just thinking about stuff.
The final thing I want to talk about is going to conferences.
3) I’ve had the opportunity to go to a number of domestic and international conferences, both specialised conferences with around 100 people and larger more general conferences. As soon as you have something to talk about, I’d suggest going to a specialised conference – this probably means you have to (get to) travel overseas.
I went to a specialised conference about 18 months into my degree. It was ICORS in Spain and I had an awesome time.
I didn’t really appreciate how important it was for my development at the time – but looking back now I think it was pretty important:
– EXPOSURE I was exposed to a heap of different ideas, while not directly relevant, they did give me a broader understanding of all the different areas in my field which made reading articles easier.
– NETWORKING I met a lot of people, so when I went back a couple of years later, I already knew people there or knew their colleagues, feel like you’re a part of a larger community. Also putting names to faces on journal articles makes them more interesting – especially if it’s tied to a fond memory of a tapas bar crawl or 3am beers in the bar of a Russian hotel.
– FEEDBACK And perhaps most importantly, it forces you to write-up your ideas and present them to a potentially critical audience so you can get some feedback (other than relying on your supervisors)
There are lots of funding opportunities if you know where to look,
– PRSS (postgraduate research support scheme)
– your research group usually has a bit of money for conference travel
– there are additional scholarships occasionally advertised on scnews (the School’s electronic notice board)
– professional bodies such as SSAI or AustMS sometimes have opportunities too – to take advantage of these you usually need to have been a member for at least a year. It’s $20 a year for SSAI and student membership of AustMS is free.
Other bits and pieces (that could have been points I talked about):
– get to know your fellow PhD students – you’re all in it together, experiencing the same highs and lows. The stats group have a weekly coffee event, not sure about the maths people.
– meet with your supervisors regularly even if you think you haven’t made much progress. I often find I make more progress in the hour or two before meeting with my supervisors than in the whole rest of the week!
– treat it like a 9-5 job so that you know you’re spending enough time on it.
– start writing early.